June 11, 2024 | AD & Biogas, Climate, Policies + Regulations

Hidden Cost Of Landfills

Top: Methane plume observed by Carbon Mapper during aerial monitoring at a landfill. Image by Carbon Mapper, courtesy Industrious Labs

Inadequate federal air emissions regulations allow landfills across the U.S. to regularly leak methane well above the legal threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to a new report from Industrious Labs that details findings from EPA inspections of municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills. The report, The Hidden Cost of Landfills: How flawed landfill regulations perpetuate a methane crisis, revealed 711 methane exceedances over the legal threshold of 500 parts per million (ppm), and found at least one methane exceedance at 96% of sites where EPA conducted monitoring. Further, at nearly half (48%) of these sites, EPA inspectors found multiple exceedances where landfill operators had previously reported few or no exceedances.

“Inadequate federal rules have allowed poor management practices to continue undetected for years and for methane leaks to fall through the cracks,” says Katherine Blauvelt, Circular Economy Director at Industrious Labs. “While EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance is using its available resources to address methane emissions from MSW landfills, thanks to these flawed regulations, it’s a game of whack-a-mole. EPA can raise the bar for how emissions are found, captured, and controlled by updating its New Source Performance Standards and Emissions Guidelines under section 111 of the Clean Air Act. This would require landfill operators to adhere to a higher standard to better detect and address methane exceedances, delivering healthier air for millions of Americans and helping to meet our global methane reduction commitments.”  EPA is required to review these regulations by August 2024.

The inspection reports revealed methane exceedances at 73% of the inspected landfills where operators had landfill-to-gas systems to produce “biogas” or “renewable natural gas,” demonstrating how gas-to-energy systems create misaligned incentives that expand landfills and perpetuate increased pollution for surrounding communities, 46% of whom are Black, Indigenous or people of color. At the McCarty Road Landfill in Houston, Texas, where Republic Services provides RNG for Ameresco, EPA inspectors found 55 methane exceedances. At the Roosevelt Landfill in Washington, where landfill operators provide RNG to a nearby facility and reported no methane exceedances in the previous five years, EPA inspectors found 16 methane exceedances above 500 ppm, five of which were above 10,000 ppm – 20 times the legal limit.

Industrious Labs’ analysis notes that landfill operators do not use the full suite of operational practices and tools and technologies available to track and find methane leaks. There is also widespread poor “cover integrity,” enabling methane to escape.

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